Are humans compatible with planets?

Thanks to the Gaia hypothesis, the environmental movement, and many other developments of the past 50 years, we now understand that our planet and all of its life comprise a complex, interrelated, and delicately balanced system. We’ve learned that Earth and all of its life have co-evolved, and continue to do so.

The horrific events of the past week in Japan prompt me to wonder (and not for the first time) whether human life can continue to co-evolve with planet Earth.

I’ve often heard experts in the disaster response community observe that there are no such things as “natural disasters.” Our living planet is continually evolving, with earthquakes, volcanism, and changing weather and climate. Disasters now occur when human populations bump up too close to natural events.

Just as forests naturally recover from massive fires, low-lying areas, such as the Mississippi delta, much of Bangladesh, and Japan’s Pacific coast, naturally recover from massive flooding. It’s people, with all of our planet-altering technology, that experience disasters.

We precipitate disasters by building up and densely populating coastlines and fault zones. When the floods and earthquakes come, our houses of sticks and stones crumble. And we rebuild – bigger and better.

China is the only nation I know of with an explicit policy aimed at limiting population growth. Most nations – including my own U.S.A. – prefer not to talk about it (or even think about it, it seems).

Advocates of limits to growth (including myself) are a subordinate culture today. We have to continue speaking up and speaking out. As advocates of expanding human presence into the solar system continue to push for settlements on the Moon, Mars, and elsewhere, I’ll continue to ask whether we have any business spreading our resource-intensive civilization beyond Earth when our way of life is straining our home planet’s carrying capacity.


Sidebar: Thanks to Charlie Petit at Knight Science Journalism Tracker for flagging stories (including an informative U.S. Geological Survey map, below) about earthquake/tsunami risks to North America’s Pacific Northwest coast.

According to a March 11 press release from Oregon State University, the 9.0 magnitude quake that precipitated the massive disaster in Japan is “of the same type, with about the same magnitude and proximity that [facing] the Pacific Northwest from the Cascadia Subduction Zone…. What you are seeing in Japan today is what you will also see in our future.”

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